Welcome to week #15 of the Cookingham Connection. Today, we learn from Mr. Tom Bonfield, the city manager of Durham, North Carolina. Mr. Bonfield has served in local government for more than 30 years, including 25 years managing cities. He served as the City Manager of Temple Terrace for thirteen years and Pensacola for ten years, prior to joining Durham in 2008. He received a bachelor’s degree in accounting from St. Leo University, after which he was drafted by the New York Yankees in 1977. He went on to earn an MBA from the University of South Florida.
Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut during council meetings. This is one of the most important principles in the field of council-manager relations. I have known more managers who have talked themselves out of jobs than into jobs. The members of the council are elected by the people and know something about the business of municipal government. When they want information from the manager, they will ask him for it, and it is well to have the information when requested.
As a young manager I was always anxious to speak up and interject my thoughts during Council Meetings. I suppose in part to show the Mayor and City Council how smart and on top of things I was. I also felt it was my responsibility to be sure that City Council meetings went off smoothly and somehow by interjecting myself I could assure that. Today after over thirty-five years in the profession I rarely speak or interject myself at a City Council meeting unless called upon.
So what changed?
I learned that City Council meetings are the Council’s meeting and not the manager’s. They are the opportunity for elected officials to (hopefully) shine, as they debate and articulate policies and decisions assigned to them by City Charter. Councilmembers are best able to articulate, debate, and vote on issues when they have been fully briefed in advance by the manager and staff through clearly written and verbalized staff reports, recommendations, analysis, and communications.
Providing or repeating this information for during a City Council meeting without being asked creates many more problems than it can hopefully help. I encourage elected officials to not wait for the Council Meeting to ask questions to avoid an answer they do not want to be surprised about and reach out to them before every meeting. I also encourage Council members to ask the manager or staff questions during City Council meetings even if they already know the answer to assist them in substantiating a particular point.
In no way does this mean the manager is complacent and not attentive and not an active participant in City Council meetings. The manager must be attentive to situations that continually play out during even the most routine City Council meetings. In particular the manager must be prepared to interject when staff members are making reports and presentations to the elected body to help clarify or emphasize important points or to support staff from overzealous elected officials.
How and when to do this comes with experience, circumstances, and the individuals involved. Always be courteous and avoid interrupting at all times. One effective technique I have found is to interject, when recognized by the chair, by asking staff members questions even if you already know the answer. This technique allows the manager to indirectly interject thoughts and ideas without appearing to interfere or inappropriately becoming involved in discussions of the elected body.
Finally if you are not sure of an answer don’t guess and don’t be afraid to say you are not sure or do not know but instead that you will find out and report back to the elected body. Council members are much more willing to accept this answer than to make a decision based on incorrect information from the manager or staff.